by Les Chappell
Author’s Note: Apologies for the delay on this one, loyal readers – due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasn’t able to get a review out to you last week. But we’re back in the swing of things, and ready to take the investigation of George Marlow to its conclusion.
Series 1, Episode 2
Original airdate: April 8, 1991
The police procedural is, if not one of the oldest formats in television, certainly one of the most prolific and well-respected. Wikipedia has over 600 examples listed, ranging from the old-school cops and robbers of Dragnet to the routine investigations of Law and Order and CSI to the grittier take of NYPD Blue and The Shield. There’s the ensemble pieces like Hill Street Blues (which my colleague Cory is covering elsewhere on this site), the character-driven pieces of Columbo and The Rockford Files, and the Dickensian urban study of The Wire. I can’t even tell you how many different cop shows I’ve watched in the course of my life, but I’d hazard a guess that if strung together in a row it’d add up to a few months minimum. (And that’s just in USA/TNT all-day marathons.
So in the grand scheme of things, the three and a half hours that I’ve spent watching the first series of Prime Suspect is only a drop in the bucket. Why, then, is this the one that I’ve been completely unable to shake from my mind since I finished watching it? I’ve been trying to answer that question for the last week and a half, and I think I finally came upon an answer after watching the final interrogation scene between Jane Tennison and George Marlow for the third time. What makes Prime Suspect remarkable isn’t that it’s a cop drama with a twist, a show with a diverse pool of detectives or one that has a case that’s worlds above anything other shows have explored. What makes it remarkable is that it may be the most psychological police procedural I’ve ever seen, a fascinating exploration of both sides of the law that never forces a viewer into anyone’s head.
The effectiveness of Prime Suspect‘s psychological study stems from something I noted in my first installment, the sheer amount of time it takes to establish the case. At the start of the second half, the first half’s cliffhanger of whether or not they’ve got an eyewitness against Marlow is resolved immediately (they don’t) and the investigation goes back to spinning its wheels. Desperate for any sort of lead, Tennison and her squad continue to dig into both Marlow’s personal life and any related cases, a move that leads her further and further off the track—a day trip to Manchester and a long-ago crime scene, opening the case files of the deceased John Shefford, search after search for a garage that might not even exist. As a consequence, this is an investigation that gradually broadens, and as the scope of the crime grows to more and more victims, you feel the oppression of it more and more. (This despair is also well-expanded on by show’s understated scoring, viola and cello building despair as necessary).
Certainly there’s no better exhibition of the toll the investigation takes than seeing the destruction it renders on Tennison’s relationship with her boyfriend Peter. As a consequence of the extended time we see again and again just how Tennison puts the investigation first, abandoning several dates in a row and going off on a tirade against him when he laughs at a tabloid calling her a “dragon lady.” The avocado dish she promises to make for a dinner with his business partners turns into a symbol of just what her priorities are—she even has her driver Jones picking up groceries at one point—and at the very end as she runs in desperately with an armful of bags, Peter’s come to the conclusion she hasn’t even thought of. “You care about your lads. You care about your rapists and your tarts,” he says wearily to her. And she can’t even formulate a reply to that, because she has to be back at the station almost immediately afterwards, and the deeper discussion she’d like to have never comes.
What makes the disintegration all the more remarkable is that while Tennison’s relationship goes down in flames, the home life of George Marlow seems almost rosy by comparison. There’s never a suspect aside from Marlow for the investigation to focus on—Tennison does try at one point to expand the investigation to her predecessor Shefford, but that’s pushed aside in ten minutes—and for over three-quarters of the special, there’s not a single indication he might be guilty. A show like Criminal Minds might wallow in the gory details of the cases, the sick pleasure that a killer takes in his craft, but all we see in George Marlow is the domestic details: painting the garage alongside some undercover cops, telling an old story to his girlfriend Moira, visiting his elderly mother in a nursing home. And in one particularly beautiful moment, Marlow and his mother sing together on a pier as an aerial shot gradually soars up to depict the entire seaside. Is it any wonder that by the end of the third episode, even Tennison’s starting to doubt they’ve got the right man?
All of that build pays off in the final hour of the series, when a possible connection between the six victims—as Tennison puts it, one little thing to whack them between the eyes—finally spurs the squad into renewed action. Once Marlow’s on the move to what may be his hidden car, it’s a rapid chain of events as they try to track him between buses and taxis, a chase scene that’s startling in its quickness given the gradual pace of the investigation up to that point. And if that’s not enough, the stark reality of what’s in the garage when Marlow opens it finally brings the horror into perspective: the missing car, complete with blood and hair samples, and a set of manacles on the garage wall that match their victims’ very specific restraint marks. By the end of it, all the detectives are rendered numb, passing scotch around and regretting they didn’t take a few swings at Marlow and claim he resisted arrest.
And upstairs in the interrogation room, the truth finally comes out. Marlow spins excuse after excuse, as Tennison counters each with the concrete facts they’ve uncovered in the investigation, and in a final moment of exhaustion Marlow screams in her face. Something very subtle stirs behind his face in that reaction (a terrific piece of acting by John Bowe) and those words three-plus hours built to come out. “This is a mess, isn’t it? All right. I did it.” It’s a brutal, bone-chilling moment as Marlow clarifies, going over the names of the six victims in the case—pausing at the end as he tries to recall the last — and all Tennison can do in response is tilt her head slightly in mutual recognition of the demon she always knew was there.
But at the very end, it ducks back down again, as the episode’s final shot is Marlow changing his plea to not guilty, his chin trembling yet eyes still staring ahead. It’s a closing moment of of ambiguity—there’s no doubt left in anyone’s mind he’s the killer, but he’s the only one who seems unconvinced.
The other side of the psychology coin the show handles with such aplomb is the detail so many people point to when they refer to Prime Suspect: the show’s treatment of institutional sexism and gender relations. Interestingly, despite its reputation Prime Suspect wasn’t the first police procedural to feature a female professional in a police environment, and wasn’t even the first in England. The Gentle Touch, which in 1980, focused on DCI Maggie Forbes juggling her career with single motherhood; and Juliet Bravo debuted a few months later centered on two female DCIs who ran a police station of a small town in Lancashire.
Now I haven’t seen either of those shows so I can’t speak to how well either of those managed to handle the issue, but what makes Prime Suspect‘s treatment of the issue so potent is the straightforward way it’s depicted. There’s no hoots and catcalls directed at Tennison’s direction, no coarse epithets of “bitch” thrown her way by disgruntled officers, and no lewd gestures or prank calls. Instead, what happens is more subtle gestures of supplanting her authority, usually by means of Detective Otley shifting files away from her or undercutting her gesture to buy a round for the troops by paying for it first. It feels incredibly realistic rather than forced, likely due to the personal touch Lynda La Plante was able to pull in when she created the show—Tennison is in fact based on a real person, Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Malton, a decorated officer in the robbery, fraud and homicide divisions, and at the time Prime Suspect aired only one of four female DCIs operating in Scotland Yard.
The way Tennison reacts to all of this is particularly impressive, in the sense that she never treats it as more than a secondary issue to actually solving the case. as she says in a dismissive aside when her troops start to get impatient, “Ah, you’re a bunch of old chauvinists, and there’s thousands more like you!” Certainly she’s aware that she can’t show any sort of weakness—one breakdown in the squad room and every last bit of respect goes out the window—but that poise seems to come from her trying to be a cop first and a woman second, not the other way around or both in equal measure.
Indeed, the instances where Tennison embraces her gender come across as the most pragmatic moments for the character: able to get information that a male officer wouldn’t be able to obtain. She’s open-minded enough to have a drink with two prostitutes and frankly discuss their murdered friend, and even laugh with them when a house painter on break propositions her. When Moira’s brought in for questioning she prepares her appearance as carefully she would for a first date, putting the two of them on somewhat equal footing—a move that lets her later confront Moira with the hard evidence of Marlow’s crimes and shatter his alibi. And while she’s not using her feminine wiles to get her way, it’s not like she’s unaware of the advantages being a woman provides: When her commanding officer is prepared to pull her from the case, she hides out in the women’s locker room until he leaves the building because it’s the one place he can’t go looking for her. (A wonderful moment Mirren plays with a terrific amount of humanity.)
And the longer the investigation goes on, a curious thing happens: Tennison’s squad starts paying as little attention to the fact as she does, especially once Otley’s pulled from the force as his pettiness starts to jeopardize the investigation. They take orders from her more willingly, are more willing to speak frankly about the investigation, and even start to find the humor in how others approach their chief. While Tennison and Jones are in Manchester to investigate one of the killings, the local police chief’s dumbfounded stare at a female DCI is met with a shrug and a wink by her driver Jones, and when she “accidentally” lets a makeshift metal door slam in the chief’s face after some insulting comments Jones just chuckles in response. The commitment to the case trumps everything, to the point that when it seems the brass might pull her off the case*, the entire squad signs their name to a document saying they won’t work with anyone else.
*The scene where word gets out that Tennison might be replaced is an excellent example of the telephone game, going from speculation to certainty as it rounds the room. And the imagery of the scene is terrific as well: she’s a blurred figure the background as they’re all talking, talk of her future now completely out of her hands.
It’s a terrific scene that works for two reasons. First, after learning what they did, Tennison’s imperious facade almost cracks in a moment of relief and gratitude, in what might be the most earnest moment in the entire series. And it’s made even better—and in keeping with the approach that earned her the respect—that once she starts to thank the entire room for what happened, it’s immediately forgotten the instant news breaks that Marlow’s on the move. These are human beings, but they’re also professionals, and it’s the professional bond that keeps everything together.
But more than any signed letter of confidence, rousing song or popping of champagne corks, the biggest sign of Tennison’s acceptance is, as you’d expect, a subtle detail. In my initial review, I cited that the entire squad kept referring to her as “mum”—a point that caused her to lose her temper more than once—and in the frenetic last few steps of the investigation, the entire squad is referring to her has “guvn’r.” They don’t make a big deal of it, they don’t suddenly come out and say that they’ll make that change, it just happens.
It was all earned, and so satisfying in the way it came to pass. Tennison earned that sign of respect, her department earned that conviction, and the first series of Prime Suspect deserves every last bit of respect it gets as an exemplar of the police procedural.